Tuesday, November 10, 2009

AAR, Montreal 2009

Saturday morning, first session: other than the general enjoyableness of hearing Dr. Sarah Coakley be her incisive witty awesome self, and some really genuine intellectual exchange in the best sort of collaborative spirit, I loved that my AAR started with a session that displayed some really interesting gender dynamics...the chair of the sponsoring group for the session had both her young son and her spouse with her, and the little boy's presence was (for me) all positive--not at all disruptive to the proceedings at hand, and I loved it that "real life" was also visibly present in what is so often a surreal cerebral "warp" world in which all that supposedly disappears through the magic of social convention. And then, one of the first questioners to approach the front to use the mic was a gorgeous, very visibly pregnant woman, a fact which could not be missed but, again--like the presence of the little boy--did not at all detract from the intellectual exchanges. Awesome. Unfortunately, those things were counterbalanced by the way in which a later questioner, old and male and very WASPy, ignored the etiquette protocols we had been implicitly constructing, and strode decisively to the mic without looking around to see if anyone else was approaching and without asking for or waiting for recognition from the panel--the body language was clear: he owned the right to take it when he wanted it, and "permission" from anyone, even the authoritative panel, was superfluous. Shudder.

The Job Center is dead to me. The message board is an instrument of psychological torture. And it's even worse to call in and ask if there's a message; the answer is no, and please, don't add that you're sorry. That just sucks.

But a couple of really fun incidents: I attended the session on transhumanism that I presented at last year. Stephen Garner was presenting again, and I was looking forward to that because I am now quite familiar with his work, having devoted a whole section of the dissertation to summarizing and critiquing his theological engagement of the posthuman. And I knew enough from just the title of his presentation that the question I would need to ask at the session was [a paraphrase in retrospect], "while I love your phrase 'the hopeful posthuman' and agree wholeheartedly that cyborg hybridity is the hopeful bit, I disagree that the cyborg should be classified as part of transhumanist discourse but constitutes its own very different feminist discourse...can you respond to that?" And he replied [again paraphrasing in retrospect], "yes, that's a good question...that reminds me, wasn't there a panelist last year, a woman named Jennifer Something..." Whereupon I said, "yep, that would be me. Hi!" And everyone chuckled. It's a riot to get referenced to yourself, I have to say.

And--of course!--my business cards, a la' Virgil O. Stamps Letterpress (a.k.a. Sarah Coffman), were a hit with everyone. But I was totally unprepared for this response, as I handed my card to a friend/potential future employing-type networker: "You are the hottest woman I've ever seen." Whereupon I said, nonplussed, "um. Yeah, they're great cards, aren't they!?" (Wish I'd thought to say, "yes, I'm really smart too," cueing from my sis Ally's habit of supplementing all compliments of my niece's admitted beauty with "and you're smart and funny too.") Thank you, Virgil. I have no job offers, but apparently my biz cards have exponentially increased my hotness factor.

And I loved having three days of Jen Bayne all to myself. Awesomeness. And seeing Rick and Anna. :)

And of course, as with any roadtrip, I had to spill coffee on myself at some point. But never before have I spilled a boiling hot full cup of just purchased Dunkin Donuts coffee in its entirety in my lap. All of it. Did I say boiling hot? I had to shuck down to my skivvies in order to stop the agony. Thank God Jen is completely unflappable and also someone comfortable enough with embodiment in both philosophical and pragmatic dimensions that she didn't even freak out when I realized halfway through taking off my short that I'd skipped on wearing a bra that morning...and after all that, I had no coffee to drink. (Talk about insult on top of literal injury!)

That's it, glad to be home. Missed Clare, missed Brent, and found it hard to be absolutely incommunicado for three days, and not thrilled about getting back on the road (in other direction) in a couple days, but definitely looking forward to TN...

"it's your money"...(but not mine)

The anti-tax, small government rhetoric, at least to this patriotic American's socialist-leaning ears, has always revolved around this basic message: it's your money, you earned it, you should decide how to spend it, period.

Unless, of course, it's health care legislation, in which case:

1) if you're an "illegal immigrant," you cannot spend your own (very) hard-earned money to buy health insurance.

2) if you're a woman, you cannot spend your own (very) hard-earned money on a procedure that remains (technically) legal.

But if you're one of those privileged few who really have constituted the referent of the phrase "we the people" since the time that phrase was originally coined, then don't worry, no one will tell you how to spend your hard-earned money.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

on the maleness of God-talk

Apparently, the presumed maleness of God is not something one can casually comment upon in one's Facebook status updates without causing consternation from unexpected quarters. So, naturally, it seems to me that a blog post is the obvious way to follow up. (Yes, that was sarcastic...in a nice way. I'm making fun of myself, y'all, and my inability to keep my mouth shut, leave well enough alone, etc.)

Actually, I'm not going to say much myself in this post. Instead, I am going to quote extensively from Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God, because 1) she's awesome and 2) she makes a really nice shield.

Johnson offers three basic ground rules for engaging in God-talk, that is to say, doing theology (whether one does theology professionally, or personally, or in my case, both). 1) remember that "the reality of the living God is an ineffable mystery beyond all telling;" 2) therefore, "no expression for God can be taken literally. None;" 3) Therefore, "from this, Thomas Aquinas argues...we see the necessity of giving to God many names" (Johnson 17-22).

Applying these reminders for our God-talk specifically to the issue of God's presumed maleness, we get this: 1) God is beyond our socio-linguistic categories, including that of gender; 2) no pronoun (male, female or neuter) in reference to God can be taken literally; 3) we need ways to reference God that incorporate every possible category since they all equally apply/do not apply.

Johnson herself observes this regarding the univocal, historical, traditional maleness of Christian God-talk:

"the practice of naming God exclusively in the image of powerful men has had at least three pernicious effects. First, because it offers no alternatives, it gets taken literally. Thereby it reduces the living God to an idol. Exclusively male language leads us to forget the incomprehensibility of holy mystery and instead reduces the living God to the fantasy of the infinitely ruling man...Second, in addition to this theological error, the exclusive use of patriarchal language for God also has powerful social effects...In the name of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, men have assumed the duty to command and control, exercising authority on earth as it is in heaven...Third, by giving rise to the unwarranted idea that maleness has more in common with divinity than femaleness, exclusively male images imply that women are somehow less like unto God...a woman may see herself as created in the image of God only by abstracting herself from her concrete bodiliness...Thus is set up a largely uinconscious dynamic that alienates women from their own spiritual power at the same time that it reinforces dependence on male authorities to act as intermediaries for them with God" (Johnson 98-99).

Johnson goes on to discuss the wealth of biblical imagery of Mother God, only one among many female images of God in the biblical text.

But I want to emphasize her main point, which I will paraphrase thus: insisting that God is male reduces God to the image of man. And God is not a man.

Monday, November 02, 2009

the cyborgs in the Garden

...Seeking a way to articulate an answer to this question, I dare to imitate Haraway’s use of provocative figures to shape an answer that flatly contradicts her assertion that the cyborg does not belong in the Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve as cyborg.[1] The Genesis narrative of humanity’s first parents need not be read in the organic, originary, heteronormative, naturalized and universalizing mode that has given us both a problematic original innocence and an even more problematic original sin. As interpreters of this biblical narrative of our cyborg origins, in which Adam is not born of Woman but is manufactured of material elements not unlike those of the flesh of humanity’s monstrous cousin the golem, and in which Eve, too, is manufactured in a strange foreshadowing of our own emergent biotech capabilities, how can we read such a myth as one of Nature, Man, and Woman in perfectly ordered, natural existence? The elements of relationality as definitive for a posthuman ontology are also undeniably present: God marks this creature, the human, as unique in no way other than God’s own choice to relate to it; the human dwells, walks and talks with the nonhuman—God, but also the animals; the human is not left “alone in the world” but created with another human. In the Garden of Eden, all manner of human and nonhuman creatures exist. Embedded within a nexus of strange boundaries of human and nonhuman relationships—human and divine, human and animal, human and human—the cyborg pair in the Garden are what they are because of the construction and contestation of these boundaries. What does it mean to be made a cyborg in the imago dei? Simply to have been made a creature who is simultaneously kin and other: to God, to other humans, and to nonhumans. The boundaries do not disappear in our acknowledgment and negotiation of them—but they become conditions of relationship, and not obstacles preventing it.
            This cyborg reconstruction suggests further that the Fall represents, not a loss of original innocence (which does not exist) nor a loss or deformation of the imago dei (which, as relationship, continues), but a poignant renegotiation of the ontological boundary between the human and the divine. Van Huyssteen suggests that Genesis 3:22 provides a “rather dramatic new dimension to the image or likeness of God,” but a negative dimension, one which stands in tension with God’s intent of divine and human closeness. Yet, further, this new dimension is one which questions the presumed boundary between human and divine: “the ultimate focus on this thin line between the divine and human worlds finally culminates in the breaking down of the necessary boundaries between these two worlds, and results in the symbolic first sinful act that leads to divine punishment.”[2]
Van Huyssteen suggests that nothing in the biblical narrative reconciles the contradiction between the created likeness and the epistemological likeness; yet he himself, in defining the human, makes a postfoundational notion of rationality central. This pair of moves leads us to the question, must we assume that this renegotiation of ontological boundaries is wholly negative? In our cyborg parents’ bid for greater understanding and closeness to the divine, for greater incorporation of the divine into themselves (eating, after all, being a material act), what is there that seems strange, or even necessarily blameworthy? Transgression of categorical boundaries in the living out of material embodied reality is, after all, what cyborgs and (post)humans are all about. Van Huyssteen’s own work on human uniqueness suggests that the very element of our humanness lamented in this text is the means by which we come to know, and relate, to each other and our nonhuman kin, including God. This is not to suggest that this element of our humanness is unproblematic, an entirely “happy fault;” but the cyborg has always been an ambivalent figure, capable of good and evil, and is no less so here...

[1] Donna J. Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 151.
[2] J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology, The Gifford Lectures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 123.